Breaking the First Law of Teaching

I regularly break the first law of teaching. More than a decade ago in Principles of Teaching class at Faith Builders, I memorized the seven laws of teaching. Though I can’t quote them all offhand, I do remember the first one: “The teacher must know that which he would teach.”

Well, I break that rule. One of the favorite activities among the lower grades during any free playtime at school is jumping rope. Many of my students have become quite skilled at Double Dutch jumping, which involves two ropes spun simultaneously in opposite directions. We tie one end of each rope to the porch railing so that only one person needs to turn the ropes. That person is usually me because, frankly, I am the only person at school who is practiced in the art of turning the ropes in a consistent rhythm that makes for easy jumping.

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One day recently, one of my girls asked, “Miss Beiler, can you jump Double Dutch?”

“No,” I replied. “I never did.”

Yet I have successfully taught dozens of children to do it, even many who were reluctant to try it at first. I have enabled them to do what I have never been able to do myself.

My girls are so eager to jump Double Dutch that it’s not unusual if I hear something like this at lunch time: “Miss Beiler, hurry up and finish your lunch so that you can come spin!” To which I usually reply, “I’ll come after a while.” They have already finished eating, while sometimes I have barely sat down. I mean, I’m the teacher. Lunchtime for me may involve unscrewing tight lids, opening stubborn packages, cleaning up spills, supervising the microwave line, and “starting the peeling” one someone’s clementine.

In other news—this school year is moving along at a rapid pace. We’ve already finished the first quarter and parent/teacher conferences, and now we’re heading right for Thanksgiving break. How does time always get away from me like this?

This classroom has been busy, as always.

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Several weeks into school, we got new desks. They were supposed to come before school ever started, but we all know how these things go sometimes. So when the new desks came we had a grand transfer party. The eighth grade boys carried in the new desks for us and took out the old ones as we emptied them.

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I doubt that you can even imagine how much easier my job is with these new desks. Goodbye to those dreadful old lids that crashed shut and sometimes wouldn’t open and sometimes wouldn’t close. All the time and energy I used to spend trying to get my students to open and close those things properly can now be spent in more worthwhile endeavors.

Oh, by the way, if you need a new iphone or ipad, I have several boys who will be happy to manufacture one for you. They’ve gone into business producing these things from cardboard and construction paper. One girl was holding her “phone” while waiting in line to jump rope. When her turn came, she handed the phone to her friend behind her and said, “Here, hold my phone while I jump. But don’t look at my texts!”

That reminds me—our spelling books are a new edition this year, and I had to laugh when I saw that one of the words in the first spelling list was texting. That wasn’t even a word when I was in third grade. Sometimes it is overwhelming to think of how much the world has changed in my short lifetime.

Sometimes, too, it can be overwhelming and terrifying to look at those eighteen little faces in my classroom every day and see eternity written there. My children will go places and do things that I will never do. They will be successful at things that I wouldn’t even attempt and possibly things that I have never even heard of.

Yet here I am, giving them one small steppingstone in a lifetime of learning.

Maybe I’m not breaking the first law of teaching after all. I may not actually be able to do all the things I teach about, but I know how to enable others to do them. And maybe, just maybe, that is what teaching is all about.

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Smiles and Sweat

It appeared to be a rather inauspicious beginning. One of the first children to walk into my classroom on the first day of school showed off a heavily bandaged finger. “I don’t know if I can write,” he told me. The only explanation I got for the bandage was, “I broke a little piece of my bone off.” Another student walked in, cheerfully sporting a large cast on his arm. I heard something about a ripstick and concrete. Fortunately it was his left arm, and he is right-handed.

Then my carefully-planned first-day-of-school schedule kind of went out the door when one of our buses showed up twenty minutes late (there was a detour because of an accident). Flexibility, I kept telling myself. It must be one of the first words in a teacher’s vocabulary. Also, we managed to start school in the midst of some of the most sweltering, sticky-hot weather of the entire summer, and my classroom is not air-conditioned. It’s not a good sign when you get to school at 7:20 in the morning and find that your classroom temperature is already 84 degrees.

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And yet it was a good beginning. I am happy to be back in the classroom. My students are happy to be back, even though some of them probably wouldn’t admit it. So far I’ve only called one student by an older sibling’s name one time. It gets tricky when you’ve taught older siblings of all but three of your students.

Here we are on the first day of school.

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If you counted thirteen boys and five girls, you counted correctly. Yes, this makes some interesting dynamics. Of course there was the usual chorus of, “Let’s do a crazy one now!” In little-boy language this basically means, “Let’s fall on a pile and wrestle.”

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Boy number thirteen must have fallen off the picture somewhere, because I can only count twelve on here. Adulting tip #101: Make peace with the fact that your life will tend to be a little crazy if it has any number of children in it.

Preparation

Problem: What do you do with the annoying pole in your classroom that is always in the way? Also, it is badly in need of a fresh coat of paint because you once had a student who had a habit of chewing on it.

Solution: You turn it into a tree, of course!

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I saw this idea online several years ago and always thought it would be fun to try, but it looked like too much work. Plus I was afraid I would spend lots of time on it and not even like the results. My tastes in classroom décor are generally fairly simple, besides the fact that my small classroom doesn’t leave much room for extras. But because the pole was in the way anyhow, and the tree idea wouldn’t go away, I decided to tackle it this year.

It turned out to be simpler than I thought it would be. Ten large sheets of laminated brown construction paper, cheap greenery from Wal-mart, lots of masking tape, and about an hour of my time was all it took. Now we’ll see how long it lasts. I can already see my boys trying to climb it before I ever have a chance to tell them not to (because, when you are an eight-year-old boy, what else could a tree possibly be for?).

On another note, let me show you a few practical little things that I used for the first time last year. Since they worked so well, I am using them again this year. It’s amazing what you can discover after years of teaching—simple little things that make you ask, “Why didn’t I try this twelve years ago?”

Lost and Found Box

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We have a school-wide lost and found box in a storage closet, but for some reason I had never thought of having a classroom lost and found until I saw the idea on a teacher blog last year. An elementary classroom generates an astonishing number of stray pencils, crayons, and other paraphernalia. These things used to clutter my desk, and it was hard to teach students not to interrupt class with, “Whose marker is this? I found it on the floor.” Now I teach them to wait until the next break or recess and then put the object in the box. Also when something is lost, we can always check the lost and found first. There’s usually a pretty good chance the lost item will be in there.

“Ketchup” Chart

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The “ketchup” chart is useful when students need to catch up on missing work. I never had a good system for this before. Then at the end of the quarter it was always a headache to chase after missing assignments that I needed to grade before I could finish doing report cards. This way whenever a student has incomplete homework, has corrections to do, or has missing assignments because of an absence, the page numbers all go on the chart immediately (written with a dry-erase marker). If a student has anything beside their name on the ketchup chart, they may not do any free time activities until that work is completed. As soon as the work is handed in, and I have checked it, they may erase the assignment.

Desk Markings

The desks in my classroom migrate everywhere if I do not have some sort of markings on the floor to show where they should be. I do not want permanent markings, however, because I want to be able to change the desk arrangement depending on the number of students I have. Before last year, I had tried all sorts of things but had not found anything that would last all year without being permanent. But I finally found the solution: A small sticker with several staples punched through it into the carpet. Stickers alone soon wear off. The staples kept the stickers there for the entire school year, but in the end it was easy to remove both the stickers and staples, and they left no lasting marks.

So I stapled my stickers to the floor today and put my desks in nice rows. Tomorrow this space will be inhabited by eighteen eager third graders. New school year, here we come!

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Water in the Wilderness

Near the end of the school year my students and I had a discussion about our summer plans. I let my students tell the class some things they were looking forward to doing this summer, and then I told them about my summer plans and how I was looking forward to singing with Oasis Chorale again. One student’s eyes lit up, but at the same time he looked a little puzzled as he told me, “Oasis is the name of my church!” I asked him if he knows what the word oasis actually means. Since he didn’t know, I gave a brief explanation and showed him why it’s a great name for both a church and a chorale. The dawning light of comprehension that came over his face is an example of one of the reasons I love teaching school.

I also love not teaching school during the summer, and Oasis Chorale has been one of the best things in my summer for the third year in a row now. Nothing is equal to the absolute joy of making beautiful music with a group of talented, committed, delightful people who love so many of the same things. How well I remember the odd sensation on my first tour with Oasis when, although I knew only a few of my fellow singers before, I had this distinct feeling of having come home.

This year we met in Kansas to rehearse and begin our tour. I fell in love with the big Kansas sky when I was a child playing with my Kansas cousins, and the place has an even bigger piece of my heart since my sister married a Kansas boy and moved out there. So I felt worlds colliding a bit (in a good sort of way) as I spent days rehearsing and recording with Oasis and also hung out with the relatives.

And then we were on the road, traveling through Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois, giving concerts and meeting many wonderful people along the way. Here is a (far from exhaustive) list of some of my favorite small moments from tour:

–my surprise in unexpectedly meeting various friends and acquaintances at almost every one of our concerts, including cousins, former students, former fellow missionaries, and a classmate from Faith Builders (in other words, people from practically all my other lives)

–chocolate placed on the nightstand by a gracious hostess who was certainly an expert in hospitality

–the parrot in our audience at Penn Station in Illinois

–the hearty laughter one day in rehearsal when, just for fun, we tried singing “Come Let’s Rejoice” (a light, dancing, Renaissance piece) in the full, heavy style of “All Hail the Power”

–joining hands with all the Oasis ladies while singing “Walk Together Children”

–looking down at the city of St. Louis at night from the balcony of our twenty-second-floor hotel room

–singing “Not One Sparrow” under the dome of the old St. Louis courthouse where the Dred Scott court case took place

–many of us piling into one hotel room to hang out together and chow down on leftover Chipotle food after our concert in Topeka

–conversations while traveling on the bus

–the way the shifting sunlight played through the stained glass window at Eastminster Presbyterian in Wichita during our last concert

One of my favorite songs this year was “I Am the Lord,” a new composition by Lyle Stutzman, with text taken from Isaiah 43. A choir with a name like Oasis would be hard-pressed to find more fitting words to sing than these: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth.  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

Of course a trip to Kansas necessitated spending a few days at my sister’s house after chorale tour was over, and I got to meet the two darling foster nephews for the first time. I don’t often spend much time with toddlers, and it is as exhausting as it is endearing. Also, one is forced to ponder the brokenness of a world where a fine Christian couple is unable to have children, but the drug addicts keep having babies and can’t take care of them. It’s a broken world where children are taken from their parents for their own safety. Yet shafts of sunlight sift through the brokenness as I see parents loving foster children as their own, even though they have no idea how long they may be able to keep them. This is water in the desert.

I came home to the ordinary luxuries of clean, wrinkle-free clothes, good water, and a familiar bed; and I counted only a few chigger bites. What trip to Kansas would be complete without bringing back a few chiggers as souvenirs?

Chorale tour has always been an oasis for my soul. For two weeks we get to play at being professional musicians, and then we go back to the classroom, the office, the cow barn, the construction site, or wherever our varied vocations take us. The stop at the oasis was rejuvenating, but the journey must continue. We can fill all the water jugs and take them with us though—water jugs filled with joyful memories and renewed resolve to live the kind of pure, Christ-centered life that this kind of music-making demands of us.

 

 

Happy Ending

It seems to happen almost every spring: The end of a school year sneaks up on me in a strange way. Before I quite know what has happened, my comfortable every-day routine becomes a thing of the past. My students leave my classroom and never assemble there again in the same way.

The end of this school year has come even more stealthily than some, and I blame this fact on the long winter. After all, wasn’t it just yesterday that I took this picture?

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Ok, it was almost two months ago, but still—after we were finally finished with winter weather, only a few weeks of school remained. Now we’re down to only three more days, and all that end-of-the-year nostalgia fills my mind.

Nevertheless, we have enjoyed these last few weeks to the fullest. There were dandelions to play with, and if you are a little girl, why would you not “paint” your face with dandelions?

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Our field trip day was one of the major highlights of the year. We visited Ephrata Cloister and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. Thanks to Faith Builders’ Living History Threads curriculum, we learn about Ephrata Cloister in our third grade history class. I love the way this field trip ties in with our history lessons. I can also highly recommend the discovery tours that Ephrata Cloister offers for school groups. The engaging, interactive tour provided a fun learning experience for my students.

At the Ephrata Academy we experienced a taste of 1800s-era school days and were able to try our hand at writing on an old-fashioned slate.

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One of the students got to dress up and act out some of the jobs of a “sister” at the cloister while our tour guide gave us an overview of the cloister lifestyle.

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We toured some of the buildings and learned about colonial medicine at the apothecary. Can you tell that by this time we were warm, tired, and ready for lunch?

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I love this place. There’s something so quiet and dreamy about it, especially in the beautiful spring weather.

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We ate lunch at the picnic grounds there at the cloister, then headed to the Railroad Museum.

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(Of course lunch tastes much better if you sit on the picnic table rather than on the benches.)

The Railroad Museum also offers great tours for school groups, and we had an excellent tour guide. The students got to try various old-fashioned railway jobs, and one of their favorites was loading luggage into this old car.

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And then, of course, we had to visit the all-important gift shop. It amuses me now, but I still remember that thrill of being able to buy souvenirs on field trips when I was a student.

It was a good day, and it’s been a great school year. I’m grateful for all the days I had with my twenty precious children.

 

More Than Just a Job

Nothing compares to that first-day-of-school charm. The desks stand in neat, straight rows. The workbooks are unmarked, and the carpet is newly-shampooed. All the pencils are still sharp, the crayons unbroken. I stand by my door and watch the children come down the hall in their new shoes, and they greet me with smiles that are equal parts eagerness, shyness, and sheer exhilaration. They scarcely speak above a whisper as they unpack their backpacks and explore their new room.

And then the first day moves into the second, and the days melt into weeks. The desks are perpetually crooked, the new shoes have scuff marks, and the floor. . . well, let’s not talk about my classroom floor. Do you have any idea how much of a mess twenty youngsters can make in a day’s time?

But although I’d like to capture that beginning charm and be able to pull it out anytime during the school year, there’s also nothing like the comfort of familiarity and established routines. Instead of sitting at their desks glancing at me cautiously before the bell rings in the morning, students gather around my desk laughing and chattering and telling me their stories. I love this. I love that I know them and they know me, and we’re not shy around each other anymore.

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No matter how many years I have taught, each year still has its “firsts.” This is the first time I have had twins in my class. It’s also the first time I have had so many girls in one class–fourteen, to be exact. Yes, we have plenty of shrieks and giggles around here. Sometimes I feel sorry for my six poor hen-pecked boys. Then again, they’re pretty good at holding up their end of things.

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IMG_1469(Practically every break and lunchtime someone will say, “Miss Beiler, will you come spin?” And sometimes it’s, “Hurry up and finish your lunch, Miss Beiler, so you can come spin double dutch.”)

I worked part time on a cleaning crew over the summer. I wouldn’t say I hated the job. Parts of it I enjoyed, and I was glad for the opportunity to make some money in between all the traveling and other things I did throughout the summer. But when school started I found myself laughing with joy each morning as I got into my car, just because I was so happy to be going to school instead of going to my cleaning job. How am I so fortunate to have a job I truly love?

And even though my dirt-spying senses were sharpened by a summer of cleaning, most of the time I don’t even care about the dirty classroom floor. It’s a sign that life happens here.

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IMG_1463(This picture is taken from my classroom window. It shows what often happens when your windows are level with the ground.)

And for a parting shot, here’s a note I found on my desk one day:

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Just Another Day?

I was having a hard time getting language class off the ground. The weather was hot. The students were restless and ready for lunch. Distractions abounded. I saw one student ceremoniously swinging his finger in the air, a long string of snot hanging from it. Before I could reach him with a tissue, he was busy rubbing the said finger on the carpet. At the same moment, I noticed several other students had their eyes glued to L’s desk, where a big black spider had decided to make a grand appearance. “Don’t smash him!” L yelped as I approached his desk. So I caught the spider in a plastic container and put it safely on my desk, telling the boys that they could play with it at lunchtime. Now, back to nouns and adjectives. . .

Yup, just another typical day in my third grade classroom. Or was it?

Once upon a time I used to write occasionally here in this space. Then, life happened. To be more specific, twenty-three little mischief makers came hoppity-bopping into my life. At all hours of the day, my mind has been occupied with planning, strategizing, problem-solving, and simply trying to make things work better in my classroom. With the kind of class I had this year, I didn’t have much creative energy left for anything else.

You wonder what I mean about the kind of class I had? Well, I can tell you this: throughout the two school years before this one, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I made students miss part of recess or lose other privileges because of their behavior. Usually a verbal warning or other minor intervention was enough to keep everyone in line. This year I counted myself fortunate if I could get through an entire day without needing to administer some sort of punishment.

“Your class . . . really needs Jesus!” said one of my co-teachers. I suppose that sums it up well.

And yet they are delightful children. For most of the year I enjoyed the challenge of channeling their energy in the right direction. It’s just that by the end I was exhausted.

But on that particular day near the end of the school year when the spider and a million other things threatened to crash our language class, I wasn’t even annoyed. I was only filled with thankfulness that all of my children were sitting there alive and well. Just that morning as we were finishing our staff meeting, we teachers heard the news that there had been a school bus accident along the route that one of our buses travels each morning. Could it be our bus? The news sounded grim.  Multiple casualties.  A helicopter called to the scene. One child trapped under the bus. What if that was one of our children?

I have never before been so happy to see Bus 6 pull into our parking lot and to see all my children come trooping into my classroom as usual, bursting with life and energy. I watched all twenty-three chairs fill up, and I thanked God anew for my dear, noisy, naughty children.

In the end, time is always so short. Every day is a gift. With more than a week of summer break behind me, the challenges of the past school year are already shrinking in size, and I miss my children. I hope they spend the summer reading books, climbing trees, and chasing as many spiders as they like.